The old book was a collection of obscure paintings, its pages yellowed and bent at the corners, its spine broken. It’d sat in a corner for years. The cover’s face had been reduced to an amalgam of murky outlines and forgotten forms. Time had made its mark on it. But Mark’s little eyes were glued to it, and he seemed stunned when his mother placed it on his lap.
“Is this for me?” he asked.
“Do you like it?” she replied.
He nodded enthusiastically. His seven year old mind remained fixated on the antique book as he felt his mother wrap her arms over his shoulders from behind. She opened the first page delicately, as if the whole thing could disintegrate if it was held with anything less than reverence.
Mark leaned in as the first painting revealed itself.
It was a flock of small birds being watched by an old man, a birdwatcher, but the style was unlike anything Mark had seen before. Shadows hugged the watcher and the watched, both of whom were kissed with the faint glow of a sunrise. Every contour, every curve was bathed in a union of light and dark that left Mark wide-eyed with wonder.
“How did they make this?” he asked.
“A painter made it with paint and a lot of thought,” replied his mother. “It took him a really long time.”
Mark ran his fingers along the rough contours of the page, as though he was feeling beyond the old paper and touching the brushstrokes themselves. He leaned in closely, until he could feel his own breath bouncing off the book, back onto his warm cheeks. His eyes carved trails through the imagery, moving between the nimble wings of the birds and the old man’s haunted expression.
“How do you work on the same painting for really long?” he asked. “How do you do that?”
“You have to really believe in what you’re making,” replied his mother.
“I don’t know if I could do that,” he said.
“Do you want to look at the next one?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Let’s just look at this one.”
That night, he dreamt more vividly than he ever had before. He found himself on a branch of a broad, knotted tree, full of leaves and fruit and birds and all kinds of life. The gnarled bark felt smooth and worn, and its grooved patterns seemed to change with every second glance. He leapt from branch to branch, eagerly ascending through the crooked arms to the tip of the tree. He looked out above the leaves and branches, and gazed out at…nothing. It was completely dark beyond the branches, darker than his bedroom at night without a nightlight. There was nothing but him and the tree.
Now, he was face to face with an old, bearded man, weathered by time not just physically, but also in other ways. He moved like he was carrying something very heavy. The wrinkles on his face reminded Mark of the strange patterns of the tree bark, and his clothes were bright and luminescent. He pointed upwards with a spindly finger.
“Look up, Mark.”
The old man’s words didn’t sink in immediately, but Mark’s eyes slowly turned skyward. Above him, looming closer than he’d ever seen, was the Sun. Its corona hung around it like a golden veil, within arm’s reach of his quivering fingers. Solar flares erupted from the swirling plasma, dancing wildly outward into the void of the cosmos. The tree and ground had disappeared beneath him; it was just Mark, the Sun, and the empty space. He reached out to touch the auroral sheath in front of him, his arm outstretched, his eyes burning with amazement.
“Time to get up, honey.”
He felt a familiar kiss on his forehead, and the fiery dream evaporated into the ceiling of his bedroom. It was time for school.
“Mark, that’s great!”
Mrs. Hill’s gaze had made its way to Mark’s illustration. He was busy at work on a crayon drawing, largely ignoring the other two kids at his table. Goldenrod and dark green unfolded in vibrant coils; waxy tendrils reaching out into the black scribbles that dominated the edges of the page. Mark looked up at his teacher, but only for a moment, before turning his attention back to the drawing. With a couple of carefully placed orange markings, he was finished.
“Can we put it on the wall?” asked Mrs. Hill.
“I wanna take it home with me,” replied Mark with a smile.
“I’ve got it I’ve got it I’ve got it!” screamed Harry, triumphantly. He sprinted ahead of the other boys, ahead of Mark, with his prize in tow. The bright, colorful page rippled in the breeze as he flaunted his victory, and he scrambled up a small ridge above his pursuers. He turned back and grinned at the boys below, his silhouette contoured by the sunset behind him.
“What’re you gonna do with it?” asked one boy.
“You gonna keep it?” asked another.
“Give it to me!” yelled Mark, his eyes glazed with tears. “Give it to me! It’s mine! I made it! Give it to me right now, Harry!”
Harry grinned, his eyes fixated on Mark. “No, I’m gonna tear it apart.”
Mark sat on the couch, his eyes shut closed. He clutched his backpack in his arms and wrapped his fingers around the zipper. The radio played in another room, and for a while, that was it. He let his mind tiptoe around memories of his drawing, how Mrs. Hill had been so impressed with it, how proud he’d been. But he managed to pull himself back before he fell into the fantasy completely; he couldn’t hide from the mangled pulp in his bag.
He felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder.
“What happened?” she asked.
He shook his head. Her hands moved from his shoulder to his backpack, and he couldn’t find it in himself to stop her as she unzipped it. She sighed as she caught sight of the ruined illustration.
“Who did this?” she asked. “Did you do this?”
“Who did this?” she repeated.
He remained silent, content to sulk and bite his lip. She left the room, taking the backpack away with her. He waited silently. She returned with the book she’d given him the night before, gently setting it on his lap. He smiled with delight as his mother sat down beside him.
She grinned, “Let’s see what’s on the next page, then.”
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